It’s hard to believe that it’s mid-November already. Upon arriving in Rome at the end of August, things seem to be moving nonstop and I don’t feel as though I have the time needed to craft well-written, thoughtful blog posts. But since I’m on month #3 as an official resident of Rome, it seems like the perfect time to step back and reflect on various aspects of everyday life here and do a mental check on what I’m experiencing and how I’m feeling about it.
Two days after arriving back in Rome, I started a contract job with the United Nations. Going from corporate America to a global humanitarian organization has been a huge adjustment and quite the culture shock. It is refreshing to be in an environment where several languages are spoken daily, and agenda items include efforts to help fund the response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. I won’t go into detail on what I do, other than to say I manage initiatives to create and maintain corporate partnerships. I have smart, dedicated coworkers who foster a very collaborative environment. What is a hard adjustment is the slow, bureaucratic mentality. I’ll stop there.
The office is located in an industrial park a few stops from Fiumicino airport, and the easiest way to get there is by train. I am lucky – I have an enjoyable 20-minute walk in the morning to Ostiense train station, where trains run every 15 minutes. Commuting by train is not new for me. In fact, I’ve been commuting by train for the past eight years, and I really enjoy it. The platform is full of people smoking and checking their mobile phones, all of us watching the sign in hopes that the train isn’t delayed (it often is). My favorite part of the commute is when hoardes of commuters disembark at my stop and I get to see everyone’s work outfit for the day. Anything goes here: stilettos, tight faded jeans, glitter, mesh. A colleague of mine told me a great story about an intern who showed up at work wearing a backless dress.
In addition to delayed trains, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing one of Italy’s biggest sources of frustration: the sciopero, or strike. Once a month, a public transit strike is called (always on Friday), running throughout the day, pausing for the evening commute, and then lasting through the remainder of the evening. Because the public transit situation is so unreliable, there is a general acceptance of tardiness in the workplace.
I had hoped to stay in my Prati apartment for the month of September while looking for a place closer to work, but at the last minute, the owner informed me that due to a family emergency, she needed the place for her sons to stay. The property rental company managed to find me a rather expensive place in Centro Storico, but I wasn’t in a position to refuse. The timing wasn’t great; the apartment change happened the same day I started my job. This apartment was located on Via dei Coronari, one of the most beautiful streets in Rome. Upon telling Italians where I was living, their eyes would roll back in their heads and they would gush about how lucky I was. It’s a pedestrian street, with Piazza Navona on one end and a view of the Castel Sant’Angelo on the other. The street is lined with beautiful cafes and Teatro del Gelato, one of the best gelaterias in Rome. I also discovered two great trattorias. The first is Trattoria Lilli, which was a welcome surprise. I ate there on my first trip to Rome and didn’t realize how close it was to Via dei Coronari (Get the rigatoni alla gricia, one of the best things on the menu). It’s a wonderful place, with friendly staff and delicious table wine. The other place is Alfredo e Ada, a father-daughter duo who serve up Roman food in a small, yet cozy place. There are no menus; they write them on the butcher paper that’s placed on the tables, and then explain them to you. Meals are extremely cheap for being located in the historical center, and they bring you complimentary cookies at the end of the meal to dunk into your red wine. I ate here several times.
So Piazza Navona, great food and gelato, and views of the Castle and St. Peter’s. What’s not to love?
Well, a lot actually.
I had a blast for the first two weeks of September, exploring the neighborhood and drinking Spritz in the Piazza. But the reality is that Centro Storico is a great place to visit, but not a great place to live. Crowds of tourists who scream and yell at all hours of the night, high prices, a challenging commute (bus then train, which are hard to time), long waits at restaurants, tons of traffic. I know, I know, poor Kerry, living in the historical center of Rome. But I didn’t come here to play tourist. I came here to truly LIVE.
Then I spotted an apartment on the UN’s community board for a one-bedroom apartment in Garbatella.
The Garbatella. Or as I like to call it, the Garb.
This neighborhood is one of the best-kept secrets in Rome. Romans will tell you that it’s “La Vera Roma”, or “the true Rome”. A walk through the Garb is like walking back in time. Restaurants resemble someone’s dining room. Old men gather outside cafes, engaged in animated discussion, while others are inside playing cards. Children ride bicycles and play in the courtyards of housing compounds before being called in for dinner. Long, drooping lines of laundry strewn outside apartment windows. AS Roma football signs hang proudly from bar counters, and political murals liven up alleyway walls. If we’re talking in San Francisco neighborhood speak, it’s the Mission meets North Beach.
Now THIS is living in Rome.
The apartment owner is a kind, quirky Brit who is spending time in Spain with her son before moving to the family home in Orvieto. I took one look at the apartment and was sold. Full bathroom, a kitchen/living room combo (there’s an oven!), tall windows that let in the afternoon son, a bedroom with large closets and a balcony with plants. A flock of parakeets fly through the Mediterranean pines during the day, and the nights are blissfully quiet.
I’m slowly becoming acquainted with neighborhood restaurants and bars, and there’s a great farmer’s market on Saturdays where I get produce for the week. People in my building are friendly, including an elderly woman who speaks to me rapidly in Italian and is concerned that I’m eating by myself. Which I am.
My language skills seemed to have plateaued, so I found myself a tutor, a young English teacher named Simona. We meet at a cafe in the Monteverde neighborhood on Thursdays where I relearn all of the grammar that I was taught at the Italian school in San Francisco. It’s humbling for sure, but I’m trying to go easy on myself. I have a job where I speak English all day, and my Italian friends enjoy speaking English, and speak it rather well. The fact that I can buy a pair of shoes (or four) in my size and ask for the 20% discount is a big accomplishment.
I’m slowly making friends, but I do wish it was happening faster. Italians are extremely friendly so that’s definitely not the reason. Mostly it’s taking time to build connections. I’ve never been the type to make fast friends. I’m attending some social events here and there which are very fun, and I see my small group of Italian friends from time to time.
I have one great friend at work, who was introduced to me by a college friend who used to work for the UN here in Rome. Duane is like a big brother to me and has taken me under his wing, introducing me to people in the office and around the neighborhood (he also lives in Garbatella). He’s lived in Rome for 30 years and has a wonderful Italian wife and a comical three year-old daughter. He also lived in San Francisco so we just sort of get one another. It’s good to be understood.
I had a good friend in Rome in September for a work trip, and we went to Florence and Montepulciano with his business partner. When he left, a friend from Montreal arrived and stayed for a week before continuing her trip around the world. I missed them as soon as they left. My work contract was extended through July 2015, so I’m hoping a few more friends will line up visits in the spring.
In October I took a trip to Genova (or “Genoa” as we say in English) with another San Franciscan. An Italian friend couldn’t believe I was spending a weekend there, as he thinks it’s a rather dirty, uninteresting place, but I didn’t see it that way. The port is beautiful, the the food intriguing, and the people some of the friendliest I’ve met since arriving in Italy. It also has the largest aquarium in Europe, which I found impressive.
The weekend after Genova, I took a solo weekend to Athens, Greece. This country has been on my list ever since I signed up for the Peace Corps in Albania in 1996. Hard to believe it took me 18 years to get there! Great food, amazing acropolis. I also made a pilgrimage by bus to Marathon, Greece to pay my respects to the first marathoner in history. The town is pretty small and quiet, but there is a marathon museum. I missed the Athens Marathon by one week, but that’s a good thing; otherwise it would have been a very chaotic visit.
Speaking of, I’m slowly getting back to it. I joined a gym in Garbatella called Roma Fitness, and I’m a 2x a week treadmill user. Duane also took me to a nearby park for a 5K, and this past weekend I ran my first 10K in six months. I still have a few lingering twinges of plantar fasciitis, but it’s so much more manageable than before. I’m starting to have visions of training for the Rome Marathon, which takes place in March. We’ll see.
All in all, I’m pretty content here. One very monumental shift is that I rarely talk about work. It’s not that I work in a terrible place. It’s just that I don’t want my job to be the center of my life, and for the past three months I’ve consistently demonstrated this. I leave at 5pm, I don’t work weekends, and when asked about my job, I give a 2-3 minute summary and then change the subject. It’s just not why I’m here.
My biggest fears are that I’ll become too complacent and too stuck in a routine, which is what motivated me to leave San Francisco. I still have issues stepping out of my comfort zone and doing things that don’t come naturally to me. I came here to try and live a more spontaneous, experience-filled life and that’s not happening as much as I want. Pazienza.